Two people pointing at a man in a chairA scapegoat is a person, group, or entity who is targeted for blame for something he or she was not responsible for.

What Is a Scapegoat?

When something bad happens, people almost always seek an explanation. When people cannot find an explanation or wish to avoid attributing blame to the actual cause, sometimes they turn to a scapegoat. The process of scapegoating can be a long and extensive one. The person assigning blame may enlist the help of others, point to past blameworthy behavior of the scapegoat, or engage in abusive treatment of the scapegoat. Governments involved in scapegoating sometimes embark on propaganda campaigns.  Scapegoats can suffer a variety of negative consequences including loss of social status, economic problems, social isolation, and depression. People are more likely to engage in scapegoating when they are stressed, experiencing oppression, or afraid. Scapegoating, in turn, can lead to the oppression of a scapegoated group.

Examples of Scapegoating

Most people engage in scapegoating at one time or another. A person who blames his or her partner for a burglary because he or she left the door unlocked or left a valuable possession visible is scapegoating. Some scapegoating campaigns, however, have been so extensive that they have had disastrous sociopolitical and human rights consequences.

For example, in the 1940s, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States began an anti-Japanese propaganda campaign and imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans. Anti-Japanese racism lingered for years as many people blamed all Japanese people for the bombing. Additionally, some historians believe that scapegoating was a major factor in the Holocaust. After World War I, Germany was decimated, and Adolf Hitler rose to power by promising to make Germany strong again, blaming Jewish people for a host of social ills.

Scapegoats in Family Therapy

In some families, one family member takes on the blame for all or most of the family’s problems; some refer to this person as the “black sheep.” Some families enter therapy specifically to address the problems of the scapegoat. For example, one child might have behavioral problems that prompt the entire family to seek therapy out of a belief that the child’s behavior problems are tearing the family apart.

Family therapists are trained to recognize when a family is scapegoating one member and, through therapy, attempt to help the family understand that the scapegoat’s problems are something in which the entire family participates. Some family systems theorists argue that the scapegoat is simply trying to draw attention to larger family problems with his or her behavior. Tools for dealing with scapegoating include helping each family member recognize his or her role in family problems, altering family dynamics so that each family member is responsible for the functioning of the family, and examining overlooked problems within the family system.


  1. Boss, P. (2002). Family stress management: A contextual approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  2. Scapegoat theory. (n.d.). Psychology Glossary. Retrieved from Theory.
  3. Scapegoating research and remedies. (n.d.). The Scapegoat Society. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 02-17-2017

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  • Andrew L.

    Andrew L.

    October 6th, 2017 at 4:02 AM

    Ima scapegoat waiting explicit pain and wrong doings for the blame of my ex partner whom can’t handle her own truth seeking real help asap

  • Deb L

    Deb L

    December 7th, 2017 at 7:20 PM

    Happened (and continues) within what is typically the very close family that grew up under one roof. In stressful economic times, I was punished, locked in my room, hit with a belt , spit into my face. I am the first born and only female. Have two brothers. Last belting was in 8th grade (I hid it .) At 17, the spitting in my face was after my mother enraged my father to a point of uncontrolled anger. The window of my room was opened and EVERTHING thrown onto the front yard in the late night. My mother would taunt me that she was planning to enrage my father… she smiled and would whisper…”If your dad has a stroke or heart attack…it will all be your fault. My family members are all very overweight. I stuck to weight watchers at age 14, and learned it as a life style. I married the first man I met to escape . I became pregnant and the husband made a good living. Suddenly, I was adored by my mother. Cut to today, I had to divorce due to the sexual and money addiction of the husband. Somehow woth 3 children I met a man with values and 1 child on a walk. As happily ever after began in 2003, I was cut from all family gatherings …it was slight , then I found emails written about me to the family. Upon direct communication…the woman I thought was my mother admitted she lied about me. She could not answer as to “why”? This woman, the man who fathered me, and 1 brother I protected from bullies, another brother I was made to care for as a newborn when I was 10, all cut me from contact. They do invite my now adult children to Holidays, and social gatherings. Funny…I am nothing like them. I earned a dance scholarship to attend college, traveled throughout the USA and to Tokyo, Japan. I was on the deans list, graduated with a bachelors and made an unbelievable amount of money for my mother and father’s company. At 50, I was duped a last time , the company sold to the 2 overweight, racist, and ignorant brothers. Call me dumb… somehow when a person is in the middle of a vortex, it is not visible until one is watching it from a far distance.
    My posture is not to drop to the low class level. I simply know and when asked, I say ” I have no contact from them as to what they are doing , nor why. Until there is a point to start at, and I have never received one…the ball is in their court. I have truly, no conceivable answer as to the actions they engage in. I have not one word form anyone of the four as to what they believe…with no starting place.. the ball is in their court and I have moved on.

  • tim


    December 19th, 2017 at 10:50 AM

    nice story

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